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Reflecting on Syrian Dinner Nights

“I am proud to be a Syrian,” Fatima Alzreik says through an Arabic interpreter. “I am a Syrian in a big country of USA.”

In August of 2017, Fatima and eight other Syrian refugees stepped into the kitchen at gralehaus, a Louisville restaurant, hoping they could show a new side to what it means to be Syrian. Gralehaus had invited KRM to partner on an international dinner, hiring KRM refugee clients to cook and serve the meal to event attendees. All of the workers were refugees resettled through KRM who have culinary experience or interest in food service.

Fatima said people know Syria for its war and the refugee crisis, but she hoped their cuisine would remind them that there is more to Syria and its people.

“Now, as they eat and enjoy the food, they share the good things with us,” Fatima adds.

Fatima cooks for her family of eight at home, and her husband owned a restaurant in Syria, yet she was nervous for the event. They arrived in Kentucky in 2015. Her four brothers and mother live in Sweden, and the brothers run a restaurant there. They told her, “It’s a big challenge. Are you ready?”

To prepare, the lead chefs Fatima and Aychaa Ghazzoul proposed Syrian dishes for the menu, and gralehaus ordered the necessary ingredients and provided some staff support.

Lori Beck, co-owner of gralehaus, Holy Grale, and Louisville Beer Store, credits the original executive order that suspended refugee and immigrant travel with sparking this idea. Being close neighbors to KRM brought refugees into focus for her and her team. Gralehaus is located within a few blocks of KRM’s office in the Highlands.

“The proximity of KRM is pretty powerful,” Lori says. “For me, it was important to find a way to connect in a meaningful way and to push myself out of my comfort zone a little bit.”

As a business, they were already engaged in local philanthropy, fed by their own interests in the arts and the environment. They cooked meals for girls at music camp and planted trees to combat Louisville’s shrinking tree canopy. They also held a traditional fundraiser for KRM earlier in the year by donating a night of proceeds.

“Food is something we all share.” – Lori Beck, co-owner of gralehaus

For restaurants and other businesses, Lori recognizes the challenge in being philanthropic.

“When you’re barely getting by, it can be hard to feel like you’re not at risk by giving,” Lori says. She sees gralehaus as a part of a growing movement, citing restaurants like The Silver Dollar and Heart & Soy for their community work.

“You’re doing what you can to make a difference,” she says. “I think people feel good about supporting businesses that do that.”

After attending a volunteer orientation at KRM, Lori was inspired to merge her food background with KRM.

“Food is something we all share—it’s an easy way to connect with people who are very different than me or had a very different life experience,” Lori explains. “Food is a great opportunity to learn something about someone and get to know them.”

The team prepares at gralehaus a few nights before the Syrian Dinner. Photo by Gary Guthrie.

For the Syrian dinner, gralehaus would charge guests. They hoped to donate any proceeds to KRM, yet the goal wasn’t explicitly fundraising. The event would offer a new opportunity for Louisvillians to learn about Syrian dinner, connect with KRM clients, and support both gralehaus and KRM. Lori and the gralehaus team paid each Syrian worker, too.

The event sold out in days, with 70 paying guests ready to attend two seatings.

During the prep nights, the gralehaus and Syrian teams got to know each other. The Syrian workers spoke Arabic and some English and, even with an interpreter present, it made for a unique work environment.

“She tried to give us all the abilities and taught us. Aycha [Ghazzoul] gave us all the power.” – Fatima Alzreik

“Andy, our chef, is very grounded and calm,” Lori explains. “They need tools, they need ingredients. It was a lot of interpretation, running around and guessing—a lot of laughing. Everyone involved enjoyed the humor in all of it. Nobody could take themselves too seriously.”

Among the Syrian team members was a chef lead for appetizer, entrees, and dessert. They had a front of house manager and multiple servers and dishwashers. Fatima’s 19-year-old daughter joined as a server. Aycha was the leader of their group, Fatima says, teaching the others how to prepare certain items or how to use specific tools.

“She tried to give us all the abilities and taught us,” Fatima explains. “Aycha gave us all the power.”

Aycha arrived in 2015 with her son, now 17 years old. Due to health issues, she does not work; she supports herself and her son through disability income. Now in his last year of high school, her son works part-time to cover his expenses and save for college. She didn’t anticipate being a part of a dinner like this.

“I never thought someday they would give me this,” Aycha says. “This is really hard for me, but I did it, and I made it.”

The trust gralehaus and KRM placed in the team motivated them, Fatima explains. Her husband works full-time to support their six children. One of her sons is blind, so Fatima spends her time trying to help him navigate. And they were all eager to see how guests would respond to the food, Fatima says.

“We tried to look at people when they first eat the food to see if they love it or not,” Fatima explains. “We’ll never forget it.”

At the end of the dinner, Lori invited the team to the dining room to thank everyone.

“Everyone clapped, and she cried, and we cried,” Fatima says. “She said she’s proud of us, and we were proud of her.”

It was such a success that gralehaus opened their doors for another Syrian dinner the following month. Almost the whole team was back on board.

Lori hopes to continue these dinners with KRM, with each having a different cuisine and style. Cuban food may be next.

“I had no idea what a large Cuban population we had in Louisville,” she says. “I think most of our patrons would be surprised to hear that.”

These events help her and her staff feel engaged, she says. One employee began volunteering. Another donated their tips from a different night to KRM.

By the time they hosted the second dinner, it felt like friends coming together again, Lori says. Aycha and Fatima laugh about a gralehaus worker who danced with them and was eager to talk with them despite their language differences.

Aycha Ghazzoul and Fatima Alzreik served as the lead chefs for the Syrian Dinner Nights at gralehaus in Louisville. Photo by Gary Guthrie.

“She didn’t treat us like we didn’t know English,” Fatima says. “Even if you speak a different language, you have to connect with each other. No matter what race you are or what country you are from, we are still connected.”

Lori does see how it may be a challenge to make that connection.

“I do get a sense that there are a lot of people that feel like me– who don’t know what to do, how to meet people that are different than you,” she adds. Still, Lori also sees the impact of food bringing people together.

“It’s hard to imagine,” she says, “That for anybody who left that day—that there wasn’t a seed planted that they can do something.”

No Syrian refugees have been resettled through KRM since September 2017. Between October 1 and December 31, 2017, no Syrian refugees were resettled in the entire state of Kentucky, according to the Kentucky Office for Refugees.

Nationwide, only 35 Syrian refugees were resettled in the first four months of the program year that started in October.

The latest executive order in October 2017 may have been halted by a federal court, however the program challenges last year continue to impact displaced people around the globe, especially individuals from Syria, Somalia, and Iraq. In case you missed his story, meet Omar, who is waiting on family from Somalia.

Photos by Gary Guthrie.